Louis Riel: written and illustrated by Chester Brown (2003): One of Canada’s tragic true tales of nation-building comes to life in Chester Brown’s much-acclaimed graphic novel. Brown’s art-style is sharp-lined and cartoony here. In the introduction, he notes the judgement of others that there’s a lot of Herge’s Tintin at work here while explaining that Little Orphan Annie‘s Harold Gray was the specific inspiration for the work done here. It’s still of a piece artistically with Brown’s other work while nonetheless being distinctive, and distinctively different from its influences even as one can see them manifest in Brown’s style.
This is perhaps the cleanest, loveliest art of Brown’s distinguished career. He modestly asserts that he’s no competition for either Herge or Gray in the introduction. Well, he is Canadian, and darn, this is fine black-and-white cartooning.
Copious endnotes explain Brown’s sources and where Brown changed history in minor ways for the purposes of drama. He didn’t have to change much. The saga of reluctant revolutionary Louis Riel, the Metis of what would become Manitoba, Prime Minister John A. Macdonald, the greedy and manipulative Hudson’s Bay Company, and the building of the Canadian Pacific Railroad supply pretty much all the drama and absurdity, the comedy and the pathos, that one could want out of a historical event.
One of the most fascinating decisions Brown seems to have made in creating this book was to essentially make it an ‘All-Ages’ project, with little swearing and no nudity or sex. No nudity or sex in a Chester Brown comic? Holy Moley!
I rarely find books to be ‘unputdownable,’ but this one kept me reading early into the morning before I finally succombed to sleep. It’s a brilliant accomplishment. Regardless of where one comes down on the issue of Riel — martyr? saint? murderer? madman? — this book seems almost necessary to any Canadian’s bookshelf. It’s heart-breaking, and heart-breakingly good. Highly recommended.